“To take a few nouns, and a few pronouns, and adverbs and adjectives, and put them together, ball them up, and throw them against the wall to make them bounce. That’s what Norman Mailer did. That’s what James Baldwin did, and Joan Didion did, and that’s what I do – that’s what I mean to do.” – Maya Angelou
La plume de ma tante est sur la table.
This popular phrase from my high school French class, combined with last week’s excursion into the land of pronouns, leads to a number of questions.
Starting with this: What’s the point of having pronouns in the first place?
Answer: Take the short paragraph, John Smith has blond hair. He also has blue eyes.
It tells you the person named “John Smith” has blond hair and blue eyes. It also tells you I’ve either inferred John is male because in my experience most people named “John” are male, or else that John has told me he’s male.
Pronouns, like acronyms, make writing and speech less repetitive and more compact. Were I to write about robotic planetary exploration, I might explain that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) landed the Curiosity rover on Mars to help us understand that planet better. NASA should be proud of what it has accomplished.
If I did, you’d understand what NASA refers to. Had I spelled it out in the second mention my writing would have been unnecessarily clumsy and bumpy.
What you wouldn’t understand was whether I was saying NASA should be proud of its accomplishments or Curiosity’s.
I violated the first rule of pronoun usage – that the antecedent must be clear.
We use pronouns to make our writing and speaking more compact and graceful. Their purpose is not to demean or categorize anyone – an accusation a number of correspondents shared with me in response to last week’s commentary.
I disagree with this view. Gender-specific pronouns don’t demean, because intent defines the crime. Unlike the pejorative and belittling terms used by bigots to refer to various racial and ethnic groups, not to mention some of the repulsive terms used by the rabidly insecure to refer to women, pronouns weren’t coined to derogate or to bolster one group’s need to feel superior to other groups.
There is a difference between outcome and purpose.
Pronouns, whether gender-specific or gender-neutral, exist to provide a less bulky way to refer to someone or something who (or that) has already been clearly identified. Our cultural traditions being what they are, we used to think gender agreement – “he” vs “she” vs “it” helped clarify the antecedent.
Clearly, that’s no longer the case. But those who advocate re-thinking how we choose third-person pronouns aren’t doing themselves any favors when some of the proposed pronouns lack clear definitions, or, in some cases, any definition at all.
Again, the first rule of pronoun use is making sure the antecedent is clear.
Gender-neutral expression is easily accomplished. Just accept the singular “they.”
The gender-aware pronoun landscape is complicated, and made more so by having no nouns, newly coined or otherwise, for the new pronouns to refer to.
As I understand it, a person’s gender refers to a combination of personal traits – at a minimum their anatomy, genetics, hormonal physiology, psychology, and maybe sexuality. Each of these might be male, female, neither, or both.
We need, that is, between 16 and 20 nouns if we’re going to sensibly identify a person’s gender. We have, by my count, four (male, female, hermaphrodite, asexual), making pronouns based on just one or two personal traits ambiguous.
Because of this unsolvable ambiguity, my opinion continues to be that, when communicating, erring on the side of gender-ignorance (“they” for all third-person usages other than “it”) is a logical and inoffensive interim solution.
When dealing with interpersonal relationships, on the other hand, personal preference, even to the extent of someone choosing a syllable at random, ought to guide our pronounal choices as a matter of evolving good manners.
Bob’s last word: Getting back to my aunt’s pen, reforming French to avoid gender-insensitivity is even more complicated than English.
Should the French insist on defaulting my aunt to a grammatically defined gender of female because the noun “la tante” is female?
Or should her personal gender assignment govern the decision, making “mon tante” the right phrasing should my aunt consider themself to be male?
An estimated 75% of all languages have gendered nouns and face the conundrum of what to do when a noun’s definitional gender (“la tante”) and personal gender (“mon tante”) conflict.
Our English-language challenges seem, in comparison, downright benign.
Bob’s sales pitch: Projects push change into an organization. That’s what Bare Bones Project Management is for. But organizational change calls for pulling even more than pushing.
That’s why I wrote Bare Bones Change Management. It complements project management with proven techniques for pulling change through the organization.